ST. LOUIS — After years of close, competitive outcomes in the annual Braggin Rights Game, it probably shouldnt be a surprise that Saturdays showdown between No. 12 Missouri and No. 10 Illinois turned into another classic.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Fortunately for Missouri, the game followed another recent trend, as the Tigers took their fourth consecutive win over the previously undefeated Illini by pounding the boards and voraciously defending the three-point shot in an 82-73 victory in front of a raucous crowd of 22,139 at the Scottrade Center.
In order to win games like this, toughness is such a key word, and I thought our guys exuded that, said Missouri coach Frank Haith, whose team improved to 10-1. They played with great toughness to finish the game off.
Illinois, which entered the game 12-0 and among the nations leaders in three-point field goals per game, shot a dreadful eight for 32 from downtown and 33.8 percent from the field overall. That, combined with Missouris 58-35 advantage on the boards, 44-24 advantage on points in the paint and clutch play down the stretch from several players, turned out to be the difference as the Tigers picked up their first signature win of the season.
One of the players who came up big when it mattered was junior point guard Phil Pressey, who struggled mightily from the floor he scored 12 points on three-of-19 shooting but finished with 11 assists and seven rebounds.
Even though he wasnt making shots, he was controlling the game, Haith said. He took a lot of those shots early. Once he settled down, I thought he made some great plays in the stretch when we needed him.
For example, the 5-foot-11 Pressey successfully guarded Illinois 6-foot-4 star shooting guard, Brandon Paul, in the second half, holding him to seven points after he scored 16 by halftime.
Brandon does a great job with his dribble moves of trying to get separation, and Phils quickness, I thought, bothered him, Haith said. Phil, when he wants to defend, he can stay in front of people and cause problems.
Pressey, who played 39 minutes, finally began to establish himself offensively with 8 minutes left in the second half and Illinois leading 62-57.
Senior forward Laurence Bowers, who scored a team-high 23 points and had 10 rebounds, started the run with a turnaround hook. Then Pressey and sophomore guard Jabari Brown each made two free throws and junior guard Earnest Ross converted a putback, giving the Tigers a 65-64 lead with 5 minutes, 32 seconds left.
The Illini failed to make a shot for several minutes during this stretch, bothered by MUs solid perimeter defense on three-pointers.
Missouri then gave itself a cushion.
First with a free throw by Tony Criswell, followed by a layup by Brown (18 points) and finally, a basket for Pressey, who was zero for 15 before a short floater in the paint gave MU a 70-64 lead with 4:32 left.
A three-pointer by Illinois senior forward Tyler Griffey cut Missouris lead to three, and after two Pressey free throws, another Griffey three-pointer cut the lead to two. Brown split two free throws, putting MU ahead 73-70, and a miss by Joseph Bertrand gave MU the ball back with about a minute left.
The Tigers took advantage, as Pressey attacked the baseline and found Bowers wide open for a thunder slam that extended MUs advantage to five with a minute left. Pressey followed with a layup 25 seconds later, and after free throws by Ross and Brown, capped the win with a fast-break layup in the waning seconds that made the final score 82-73.
Oh yeah, that was a gimme, Pressey said with a grin. I missed a lot of chippy layups, I was getting frustrated with myself.
But his late basket at least allowed him to end the game with a smile, right?
I was going to be smiling regardless, Pressey said with a laugh. If we win, Im good.
Hes not the only one. Senior center Alex Oriakhi, who finished with 13 points and a game-high 14 rebounds, has won a national championship before (at UConn) but was noticeably excited after witnessing, for the first time, the raucous atmosphere of yet-another classic Braggin Rights Game.
This game definitely lived up to the hype, Oriakhi said.